Vacation From My Vacation

Day 713 – 11 February, 2017

Being a savvy traveler not only involves good decision-making and knowledge of your destination, but also recognizing that when you are searching for a flight from Johannesburg to Mumbai and the cheapest flight happens to be on a little airline called Air Seychelles, which means that your flight will connect in Mahé, Seychelles and you can force a stop for any number of days, that you better take advantage of this unexpected good fortune and stay for as many days as you can well afford. This is how I ended up on a vacation from my vacation (which I say tongue in cheek because most of my travels certainly don’t resemble any kind of vacation that you would recognize). When I booked this flight with an 11 day stop in the Seychelles, I could barely skate by on my meager budget by booking an AirBNB on Mahé Island and another one on Praslin. They both averaged $100/night, which drove a stake into my careful budgeting, but I rationalized that I was due a little splurge and besides, I would be spending my days at the beach. That’s basically free, right?!

It was dark when I arrived and I had arranged for Rupert, the AirBNB owner, to collect me from the airport. Victoria is the capital of the Seychelles, but it’s barely more than a small town with city gridlock traffic so I was lucky to arrive after most of the bustle had dissipated. I found Rupert soft-spoken and really kind as we drove through winding mountain roads toward the west side of the island. Because it was dark, I couldn’t see the view, but he pointed out the local market, the bank, the bus stops and the path to the beach. This was all I needed! When we arrived in Beau Vallon and drove into the gravel driveway of RowsVilla, I was exhausted. I had rented a second floor one room apartment with a balcony and converted kitchen. I wasn’t sure what to do with so much space all for myself. The air conditioner turned the room into an icebox and I snuggled up in just a sliver of the queen-size bed with an extra blanket.

The island sun woke me up as it poked through the slats of the blinds. I wiped the condensation from the sliding glass door as I opened it up to the morning sauna outdoors. I didn’t have much of a view, but the blue sky beckoned me toward the beach and I envisioned a morning coffee at an open-air cafe. Packed a beach bag, grabbed some fruit that Rupert had left in the fridge, and wandered down the path toward Beau Vallon Beach. Some of the most famous residents of the Seychelles are the Aldabra tortoises. I thought I would have to seek them out, but was puzzled to be greeted by the colossal reptiles in a small pen on the shaded path. I couldn’t understand why there were so many in such a small space; it seemed as if they were there for the amusement of the hotel guests nearby.

Beyond the tortoise pen, I walked through the lobby of a beachside resort that opened onto a white sand beach marked by those telltale boulders of which the Seychelles is famous. Beau Vallon is one of the longest stretches of uninterrupted sand on Mahé and there were plenty of palms offering the perfect amount of private shade. The water was as calm as the sea will ever be and I collapsed on my beach towel to soak in the rays.

When I grew hungry later in the day, I quickly learned that there was very little in the way of budget-friendly dining. I tried to find an unpretentious cafe with a place to connect to wifi. My apartment didn’t have wifi, which was inconvenient but surely there would be a cafe that could become my regular spot for the week. No such luck. Many of the restaurants offered mediocre American or European food with tourist prices to match. I tried one that first day and after a disappointing meal and spotty internet, I decided I would have to go shopping for groceries and perhaps buy a SIM card. For groceries, I purchased some eggs, fruit, crackers, and a bag of frozen shrimp imported from Asia and my price tag was in the $50USD range. Hmmm… Stopping at the mobile store, I discovered that a SIM card would be about $40USD to activate and for usage. The Seychelles was indeed blowing up my budget. Ultimately, I decided that I would have to forego coffee and alcohol and internet, all painful sacrifices since I had done little in the way of planning this island visit. Instead of internet research, I would be researching things to do the old-fashioned way – by asking the locals.

From Rupert, I found that I was staying relatively close to a short hike to a private beach, Anse Mejor. Marked by a dot on my map, Rupert dropped me off at the bottom of a curvy cliff side road. A barefoot man with a dirty t-shirt was trying to get my attention. He had what appeared to be a furry bat in a cage and wanted me to take a look. I pretended not to hear him calling me as I began walking up the hill.

The path led over scalding black volcanic boulders for about 30 minutes before opening to Anse Mejor. There were a few people that had arrived before me, mostly couples that kept quietly to themselves. The walk had been sweltering so I found a little protected shallow cove of water where I could lie down and let the warm tropical water run in and out with the waves. An Italian girl, who was traveling alone, and a man in his 30s that appeared to be local, yet he spoke with an English accent, were talking nearby. His name was Jay and he was originally from the Seychelles but had moved to England as a child. He was now a chef in London and returned every year to spend a month with his family.

He had a few local snacks with him. Overcome with curiosity, I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know where and what the locals ate on this cash cow of an island. When I approached, he offered me breadfruit chips and a charred octopus kebab. The three of us easily fell into conversation together. Finally, when the shadows were beginning to grow longer and I decided it was time to go, the Italian girl retreated into the aquamarine water and Jay said he would walk with me back to town. The heat was still punishing as ever and the sweat dripped down my back in rivulets. When we exited the path back on to the road, Jay wanted to introduce me to his friend (the man with the bat). Bat Man was not a fan of mine after I had ignored him on the way up and since I’m not in the business of letting someone curse at me to my face, I casually walked away and let him curse at me to my back.

Eventually, Jay caught up to me and said he knew of a waterfall on the way to Beau Vallon if I wanted to cool off. I had about 2 km to walk on an unshaded asphalt highway so a waterfall sounded great. We turned off the highway, walking away from the coast, toward a decidedly untouristy village with children playing in the mud and a stray dog prancing ahead of us as if he was showing the way. We were only a few hundred meters from Le Meridien Resort but it was as if we had entered another world. There were a couple of teenagers swimming in the waterfall in their underwear; a sliver of soap and a nearly empty bottle of shampoo were tucked into a tree root for public use. It was wonderful.

After two days on my corner of the island, it was time to explore further afield. Port Launay was a beach that had been highly regarded with calm clear water and was only a skip south of where I was staying. I knew that bus service was regular on the island and it was easy to assume that the bus route would go around in a circle. However, after consulting with Rupert, he indicated that even though Port Launay was close in distance, there was a mountain in the way.

I would have to take the bus to Victoria, change vehicles, and continue to my destination via a clockwise route instead of the more logical counter-clockwise approach. I didn’t see much point to checking the bus schedule until I spent almost 45 minutes waiting for the first bus to take me to Victoria. It would be the first time I could see the capital city in the light of day. The trip to Victoria was only about 5 km, but it winds over a narrow mountain pass that makes walking impossible. It took close to 30 mins of bumper to bumper traffic before I saw the cluster of buildings on the eastern side of the island. There was a nice market and a few cafes, but not much else to note for a city of this size. I had planned to explore a little bit, but so far the commute had taken long enough and I headed straight for my next bus. Many of the buses were decommissioned school buses with hard plastic seats and windows that were either permanently up or permanently down. Many local commuters, a handful of tourists, and swarms of mosquitoes were finally on our way to Port Launay, which I now knew was perhaps the furthest and most taxing journey from Beau Vallon that I could have dreamed.

Door to door it took me about 3 hours to set foot on this stretch of beach. The island of Mahé is about 61 sq miles. We stopped every hundred meters or so to pick up or drop off a passenger so I was getting a good tour of the country if there might be anywhere else I should visit that week. The water of Port Launay was exceptionally shallow and with the cloudy skies, it retained a green hue. It appeared to be popular with snorkelers for the brightly colored fish that I could easily see without snorkel gear. Swimming was ideal for the calm water. I had a picnic so I settled in with a good book and willfully procrastinated on making the return trip to Beau Vallon.

After a few more days mixed with bulging rain clouds and quick trips to the beaches nearby, I was ready to take that bus trip again. This time, I left earlier and checked the bus schedule for Anse Takamaka (of which there are 3 Takamakas on Mahé so it was helpful to know which one!). It was generally in the same direction as Port Launay, but further south and facing a different direction, allowing for moderate waves to buffet the boulders that frame both ends. A small wedding was set up on one extreme of the beach, while the other was home to a bungalow resort. Very few people had discovered this little slice of heaven. I spent the day reading and swimming and when I was fully baked, I pulled my beach towel into the shade and took a nap.

Fully sun-kissed after 7 days on Mahé, I reluctantly packed to go back to Beau Vallon from Takamaka. Sans internet, I wasn’t able to check the bus schedule for the return trip. The bus stop was only about 20 meters away and I didn’t have to wait long, but away from the ocean breeze, a cloud of hungry mosquitoes made it seem like I was waiting for that bus for hours. I grabbed a window seat, while a heavyset woman was in the aisle. A girl of approximately 6 years old sat between us in her school uniform. I had assumed they were together until the heavy woman got off the bus and left the little girl behind. Not completely unusual to see a child of her age traveling alone, I had never really given it much thought. However, this time I noticed that her feet didn’t even touch the ground and she was carrying a Dora the Explorer backpack. Just when I was pondering what it must be like to grow up in a place like the Seychelles, the girl vomited into her own hands. She was so quiet and discreet about it, I hadn’t even realized what happened. It was unclear if she was ill or only car sick. Some of the liquid and larger pieces had cascaded down the front of her uniform. The new woman who was sitting on the aisle recoiled and changed seats. The little girl began brushing the chunks off of her dress on to the floor and seemed unsure what to do. I dug in my bag for tissue and water of which I had little, but it seemed to be enough to salvage the situation. I asked if she was ok, but she appeared to not understand the question. It was just beginning to rain as we went back to being strangers; I wished I could do more for her because she seemed genuinely worried about her dress. Then she whispered something to me, so quiet that I barely knew she was speaking at all. She said it again, “Can I lay on you?” My heart breaking, of course I agreed. She laid her head on my shoulder for the rest of the journey back to Victoria.

Thankful for Wet Feet

Day 703 – 1 February, 2017

Swelling black rain clouds hung low over our bush camp in Hwange National Park, yet our new Nomad Africa tour group was claiming seats in an open air jeep bound for a game drive. Liz, Emil, Elin, John, and I were the only remaining members from our original group. We even had a new guide and driver. Now instead of campers being the majority of the group, we were the minority. Our two lonely tents looked rather pathetic with the impending storm looming in the distance.

Our safari jeep had a canvas draped over the top, but the sides were wide open. Almost as soon as we drove out of the camp grounds, the skies opened and dumped buckets of water. Huge rivers of mud flowed on the dirt track. I bowed my head so the water would drip down the hood of my rain jacket instead of pelting me in the face. Unfortunately, there’s not much hope of spying wildlife when you can’t see through the driving rain.

Just when our hope was fading that this would be another disappointing excursion, the rain abruptly stopped and rays of sunlight started illuminating the landscape. The clouds all but disappeared and the sky was blue. Still, the bush was quiet except for a few birds, wildebeest and jackals. The guide demonstrated a traditional gummy plant that was used as an ingredient in soap. Rubbing a small amount of the sticky substance on your hands would elicit a lather and a pleasantly clean scent. Next we came upon a scattering of sun-bleached elephant bones that had clearly been there for years and our guide took this opportunity to get out of the vehicle and talk about elephant anatomy. Meanwhile, the rest of us were anxious to see some live animals.

So far we had been driving at least an hour and were growing a bit bored when straight ahead there was movement directly in the track in front of us. If you blinked you would have missed it, but I didn’t blink. A chill down my spine I knew I had just seen a leopard in the road. Almost as if she was a ghost, she completely disappeared into the undergrowth beneath a tree. Slowly, quietly, we coasted closer until we were directly next to the tree. The thickness of the foliage produced a shadow on the ground, but if you knelt down just far enough you could see she was right there watching us. We were no more than two meters away, separated by brambles and thorns. At first, she seemed nervous that the slightest movement would send her sprinting away, but finally she relaxed as if she was prepared to stay put until we drove away. Knowing she was there and so close, but we could still barely see her was a reminder of how many creatures we probably miss on an average game drive. They are excellent camouflage artists.

Can you see the super close-up of the leopard?

A few minutes later a caravan of more safari jeeps were following us down the track and comically, our guide told us to pretend as if we were looking at birds. The guide driving behind our jeep asked if we saw anything and our guide said, “no, mate, it’s quiet today.” Reluctantly, we drove on, hoping the train of 4 more jeeps would follow us and leave our leopard alone so that we could return and have her all to ourselves. I found this amusing and a little exciting. Guides are usually fraternal and willing to share tips with each other, but in this case, four loads of Chinese tourists would definitely frighten our leopard so we successfully led them away. Nothing to see here!

After driving around in a big arc, we returned to the same spot and even though the beautiful cat was still there, the shadows had grown longer and it was almost impossible to distinguish her spots in the dark. Our safari was drawing to a close so it was time to start the journey back toward camp. Seeing the leopard, even if only for a minute, had reinvigorated our lethargic tour and we were boisterously recounting her dart into the bush and sharing the one or two photos that we had snapped in her brief visibility. I was staring straight ahead, smiling to myself, when I saw them. I would have thought it to be impossible if I wasn’t seeing it with my own eyes. What luck!!! A lioness and three tiny cubs casually sauntered in the road. She was carrying one in her mouth and the other two followed closely behind. In contrast to the jittery leopard, this confident lioness stopped, turned to look at us, and calmly continued on her way. We trailed her at a slow pace, but she didn’t seem to be bothered by us at all. A group of impala saw her coming and they anxiously kept a fair distance, but she was with her babies; this was not a hunting posture. From my experience on nine safaris so far, I had learned that lions and leopard, in particular, don’t like to stay in the grass after a rain for the uncomfortable sensation of having wet feet so our luck of seeing all these beautiful felines in the road, was quite possibly because of the rain.

For about 200 meters, we watched her. Occasionally, she would stop to set down the cub in her mouth, readjust her grip, and pick it up again. These cubs were young enough that our guide predicted she was bringing them to introduce to the pride for the first time. When lion cubs our born, the lioness will keep them isolated from the rest of the pride until they are old enough to withstand the roughhousing of their cousins, usually about 1-2 months. There was a chance she would lead us directly to the rest of the pride. A rare ritual that our guide confessed he had never witnessed before, we watched our lioness set her cub down for the last time. As if by a telepathic cue, the three cubs darted into the long grass and were gone, while our lioness stood her ground staring down several more lionesses and a few older cubs. There was obvious tension until one of the new females moved toward the grass in the same direction the new cubs had just disappeared. The new mother seemed hopeful, yet ready to defend her cubs if it came to that. This introduction behavior does not always go smoothly. What happened next, we can only guess. All of the lions, big and small, moved into the grass out of view, but we could hear them playfully chuffing and growling a non-threatening greeting. This would be a happy reunion after all.

Back at camp, a few members of our group had heard that a family of giraffe were quietly grazing just outside of the campground perimeter fence. I stayed behind for a shower and a quick rest before dinner so I wasn’t there…but you know how when you’re with the same people for days on end and there’s that one that treads on the line between partially endearing and partially annoying beyond words? Liz had learned a new trick to take close-up photos using her smart phone and binoculars and had reasonable success most of the time. Unfortunately, this once, with her binoculars and phone completely lined up for the perfect photo of a grazing giraffe, John announced, “I have to pee,” and turned to his left to walk away. Thus, John did not pass GO when he leaped right over that theoretical line into gritting teeth and eye rolls for the remainder of the week. The giraffe also does not seem amused.

The Smoke That Thunders

Day 701 – 30 January, 2017

Victoria Falls is one of the great wonders of the natural world. It’s approximately 1700 meters wide and up to 108 meters tall, twice the height and one and half times the width of Niagara Falls. During peak flood season, when up to 10.5 million liters of water flow per second, the massive quantity of water flowing through the falls can cause a spray that looks like a heavy blanket of smoke. Depending on which way the wind blows, it can create weather on either side of the border it spans from Zimbabwe to Zambia.

After a tedious but uneventful border crossing from Botswana and a slow slog through traffic in Zimbabwe, we knew we were approaching Victoria Falls for the thundering mist you could see from miles away. It looked like a rain cloud, swollen with an isolated summer deluge, yet it had a wispy ethereal quality to it that resembled billowing smoke. It wasn’t until our truck was parked and we began walking to the park entrance that we could hear the rumble of millions of liters of water from the Zambezi River, cascading into the Batoka Gorge below.

Forewarned about the spray, we donned various degrees of rain gear. The air was humid and still so the addition of a non-breathable rain jacket and waterproof pants created something of a sauna next to my body, but I was most concerned about my phone (i.e., my camera). I tucked it inside a plastic bag that I reserved just for these occasions and thought, can it really be that bad?

The Zimbabwe side of the falls spans 75% of the full chasm and has 16 different viewpoints. There is a well-maintained path with (some) safety buffers and signage for ominous warnings of impending death, but what I remember most of all is the demonstrable power of that much water. An impala grazed only meters from the waterfalls first viewpoint, a reminder that we were still in wild Africa.

To see the falls up close is nearly indescribable. You can feel it inside you, vibrating from your core all the way to your fingertips. It smelled like rain and was so loud and prepossessing it refused to let you ignore its presence. If a waterfall can have a personality, this one was Beyoncé. I tried to allow my eyes to follow a drop of water from the precipice all the way down and was, in turn, becoming hypnotized by it.

Most of our group stayed together, taking photos, and posing for selfies. It became increasingly obvious that my flimsy plastic bag was no match for the torrents of this waterfall so I would quickly take out my phone, snap some pictures in a full panic, before tucking it back in the bag dripping wet. A few others that were better prepared with waterproof cameras saved the day. By the 16th viewpoint, looking back on the bridge that connects Zimbabwe to Zambia, Tomas noticed that both his phone and camera were toast. Victoria Falls had taken a couple of casualties, after all.

I love this one.

That night, my Nomad Africa friends shared a fancy dinner at a touristy Vic Falls resort, complete with traditional dancing and a gluttonous buffet. It was times like these that I hated tour groups. This was my third in two years of travel and while it is easy to forget that I’m not like the others when we are all enjoying the sight of an elephant or a thunderous waterfall, I’m harshly reminded about this difference when we are faced with paying more than $25 for a single meal. Perhaps hard to relate for some of my readers, but a backpacker simply does not do that. While I won’t decry the merits of a good meal, $25 for ‘authentic’ tourist food was not part of my budget. If this had been a regular occurrence, this trip would not have been possible, I assure you. I reluctantly went and ordered a la carte because I did enjoy the company of my fellow travelers, and because I knew that soon I would be with backpackers again who would have chastised me for such a gross blowing of resources.

Part of the reason for the overpriced meal compared to other cities in Africa I had visited was because of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. Their currency, the Zimbabwean Dollar, ceased being the official currency in 2009 where now they favor the US dollar. When the Zimbabwe Dollar was first introduced, it was intended to be at par with the USD, but after an ineffective economic strategy, it eventually became one of the lowest valued currencies in the world. By the time the currency was to be demonetized at the end of 2008, the inflation rate was 80 billion%. Fathom that for a second… Hawkers would stand on street corners trying to sell $100 trillion bank notes as souvenirs. The absurdity of it was also quite sad.

The following day everyone branched off into different directions. It was our official last day as a group, but it was a free day to further explore the falls. A few people went to Zambia to meet our driver, Doc, and practice boxing with him. Others went bungee jumping or walking with lions. The water at the falls was too intense and too high for some of the more daredevil activities, like taking a dip in the Devils Pools or whitewater rafting in the river itself. Tomas, Liz, and I had obtained multi-entry visas so that we could go to Zambia and return the same day. We walked from our hotel, first stamping out in Zimbabwe and then walking over the scenic bridge to the Zambia side. Most everything seemed the same – same trucks yielding the same black exhaust, same somber faces carrying the same yellow jugs of water, same baboons performing the same lascivious mating dance, and the same thunderous clammer from the world’s biggest waterfall.

The intention was for Tomas, Liz, and I to walk across the Knife Edge Bridge at the top of the falls and down to the Boiling Pot, the deep pools where the water has carved a protected swimming hole. During the season of low water, tourists can take a guided hike to swim in the Boiling Pot, but in early February, the water was too high and too unpredictable and all guided hikes had been suspended. A troop of baboons greeted us at the entrance to the trail, refusing to yield the path. They were grunting which made Tomas and Liz uneasy, but I recognized it as the sound they make when communicating with their babies. I guess I’ve learned some specifically useful(less) information on this odyssey. If you ever encounter a troop of baboons, I’m your girl! We gingerly stepped around them, while they presumably grunted to their babies that no, we didn’t seem to have any food so that they should just leave us alone.

It was a steep walk down to the Boiling Pot and seeing the churning, frothing water at the bottom, it was a bit inconceivable that people would actually go swimming there. But then again, it was equally hard to imagine the waterfall running almost dry only three months earlier. We sat near the boulders at the bottom with an unobscured view of the Victoria Falls Bridge that we had earlier crossed when entering Zambia. With no warning, it appeared that someone was falling from the bridge before seconds later rebounding back into the mist. The bungee jump! This is when we remembered that Emil had planned to bungee that day so we watched a few more jumpers propel themselves downward, thinking perhaps that each one was him.

The walk back up from the Boiling Pot was sticky and humid; my hair plastered to the back of my neck and my skin flushed pink from heat exhaustion. There was a small rest area at the entrance to the remaining hiking trails and it appeared people were preparing for battle, either that or preparing for a torrential rainstorm. Raincoats, ponchos, galoshes, and dry sacks were either coming off or going on, depending on the direction of the hikers. It was obvious from those that were returning from the bridge that the gear was not an overreaction, but we were still too hot from our previous hike to throw on another layer of clothing yet. We wanted to wait until we actually needed our rain jackets, but the decision was made for us in only a few meters from the trailhead.

The Zambia viewpoints lie closer to the falls than on the Zimbabwe side so were almost immediately soaked to the bone. Walking across Knife Edge Bridge seemed as if we were walking through the waterfall itself. I gave up trying to protect my head from the shower; in fact, the cool water was a welcome relief as it streamed down my back inside my jacket. For someone who had grown quite tiresome of waterfalls earlier in my travels, this one took the term ‘natural wonder’ to a whole new level.

And we weren’t done yet. Back across the border in Zimbabwe, Tomas and I were booked to take a 12 minute helicopter ride and get an aerial view. We had originally been scheduled for an early morning helicopter and even gone so far as the safety briefing and takeoff before turning around 3 minutes into the flight, citing the reason as unsafe weather conditions. We were rescheduled for an afternoon flight and I must say that the weather conditions seemed to be exactly the same this time when we took off with 4 additional passengers and began circling the waterfall. You would think that viewing Victoria Falls from so many different angles we had seen enough, but nothing really compares to that bird’s eye perspective. It’s difficult to fathom the size until you see it from air.

Thoroughly satiated with nature’s beauty, it was time to relax. Tomas was officially done with the tour, while Liz and I and a few others would be continuing for the second leg back to Johannesburg through Zimbabwe. He had booked a high-end luxury resort for his last night and had invited me for an afternoon at the pool. The resort was only a few kilometers from town, but it was surrounded by pristine African bush. From the pool deck, we could see zebra, ostrich, wart hogs, and even a few giraffe grazing from the top branches of acacia trees. It was pure magic and for a moment, you could glimpse what this panorama may have been like before resorts and helicopters and $100 trillion bank notes.